How Inappropriate Attire can Zap Your Confidence

While attending a recent dinner party, I again had the opportunity to observe the amazing effects wearing inappropriate attire can have on one’s self-esteem. It turned a confident, educated, well-paid woman into an apologetic, shrinking wallflower. All from a person who had proudly proclaimed that she had no use for fashion.

Here’s the story:

My husband Robert, a scientist, recently joined the faculty at the University of Delaware. As part of the welcoming festivities, we were invited to dine with the University President and his wife, along with about 50 other couples. The invitation called for cocktails on the veranda followed by a buffet supper on the lawn of their 18th Century estate.

I opted for a knee-length, short-sleeved black crepe dress, which I paired with sheer black hose and black pumps. I finished the ensemble with pearl earrings, necklace, and bracelet, and wore simple makeup since we were going to be outside. Robert wore a light gray sports coat with dark trousers, gray tie, and a white dress shirt.

We were dressed very similarly to most of the faculty there. In fact, the President’s wife was dressed in a cream suit with black jewelry – the exact opposite of me – and as we went through the receiving line, she and I joked about looking like salt and pepper shakers. She made a point of stopping to talk to me twice more during the course of the evening, inquiring about my husband’s background and again welcoming us to the University. By the time we left, we’d met several very nice couples, and my husband, a schmoozer from ‘way back, had made some valuable contacts.

For one of his colleagues, however, the evening could not end fast enough.

“Dr. Jones” is also a recent addition to the faculty in the Biology department. As is common in the scientific community, she usually wears very casual clothes to work. On the day of the faculty dinner, she had on a t-shirt, khaki pants, and tennis shoes.

She caught Robert as he was headed out the door early that day, and asked him where he was going in such a rush. When he told her, “Home to change for the dinner party,” she proceeded to laugh at him and asked him whom he was trying to impress.

The banter evidently went on for several minutes, with Dr. Jones proclaiming that “true intellects” had no use for formal clothes. She was going to wear what she had on, and if others didn’t like it, that was their problem.

Her bravado lasted as far as the front door.

As we gathered in a queue to go through the receiving line, Dr. Jones quickly realized the folly of her decision. While she and her husband stood there in their work clothes, they found themselves surrounded by elegant couples in suits, skirts, and good jewelry. The Joneses didn’t look like a couple of rebels, out to “buck the system;” they looked like they didn’t get the memo that this was a semi-formal affair.

Their discomfort was palpable.

They discussed whether they should leave, and then the good doctor tried to say that no one had told her it was a fancy dress affair. When Robert arched an eyebrow at her, she sheepishly turned away. Yes, she had been told. She simply chose to ignore it.

So while everyone else there was making the most of the networking opportunity, the Joneses lingered on the fringes, checking their watches every few minutes. What few conversations they did engage in began with Dr. Jones apologizing for their attire. They left at the first opportunity.

So what went wrong here? And perhaps, more importantly, how can YOU avoid a similar fate when faced with an unknown dress code?

1. Never Assume That the Rules Don’t Apply To You

Over the years, I’ve met literally hundreds of people who felt that because of their education, talents, political beliefs, or whatever, that the rules of social conduct just didn’t apply to them. Because they perceive themselves as being above average in a certain area, the rules for “average people” just don’t apply to them.

Unfortunately, the research just doesn’t bear it out.

The whole image industry began in the 1960’s when a Connecticut schoolteacher, moonlighting in the men’s department of a New York department store, discovered that people responded in specific ways to how others dressed. From hair cut to shoe style, clothing color to accessories, John T. Molloy determined that you could actually engineer your wardrobe to evoke particular responses. If you wanted to get ahead, he concluded, then having “the correct” wardrobe was as important as getting a good education. The whole “Dress For Success” phenomenon evolved from his findings.

Now while many of his clothing recommendations are a little dated at this point, the crux of his research echoes the findings of similar studies done to this day: people will respond to how you are dressed based on THEIR background and experience, not yours.

So if your clothing and accessories are similar to theirs or someone they trust and respect, then research shows that they will consider you an equal and respond to you accordingly. If, however, your clothing is much more or much less expensive, threatening, or completely foreign to them, then you will be considered unequal, and again, treated accordingly.

That’s why a woman wearing a tailored suit into an office building might find men holding the door for her and treating her like a lady, while the same woman wearing a housekeeping uniform in the same building might be all but ignored.

It’s also why the Joneses were all but ignored at the faculty dinner. While everyone else was dressed like professionals attending a social function, the Joneses looked like college students who had wandered in off the street. That they didn’t glean the dress code from the invitation made them appear poorly schooled in the social arts. A confidence-shaking experience, to be sure.

2. Read The Invitation. Then Read It Again.

If someone had dropped by Dr. Jones’ office on the way out the door that night and invited her for dinner and drinks, then her workday attire would have been appropriate. But this was an engraved invitation mailed weeks in advance that had required a written reply. There was simply no mistaking the formality.

When you get an invitation, read it. Then read it again. Don’t assume ANYTHING — particularly if you’re new to an area and uncertain of the local dressing customs. If you don’t know what kind of attire is appropriate, find out. Ask someone. Call the hostess, if necessary. A one-minute phone call could save you a whole evening of agony.

3. Always Keep Appropriate Clothing In Your Closet.

The easiest way to always dress appropriately is to keep key pieces in your closet that can span the many different occasions in your life. Whether you work on a ranch, wear a uniform to work, have a business casual wardrobe, or are totally corporate, having separates in your closet that can take you through a wide range of activities will enable you to dress in a snap. Anticipate, organize, and execute. It’s the easiest way to manage a wardrobe.

So what’s the bottom line here?

Dressing appropriately puts you on a “level playing field” that allows you to confidently interact with others. Dressing inappropriately makes you self-conscious and ineffective.

If you prefer to be in control, then always strive to dress according to the situation. If you don’t know what that is, ask somebody. Don’t assume anything, particularly if you’re new to the area. Knowing how to dress appropriately makes you appear confident, schooled, and savvy.

Take the time to learn what’s appropriate in any questionable situation and you’ll never find yourself apologizing for your lack of finesse. For once you get the clothing issue out of the way, you can get down to more important things – like the business at hand.

Dressing appropriately puts you on a “level playing field” that allows you to confidently interact with others. Dressing inappropriately makes you self-conscious and ineffective.

If you prefer to be in control, then always strive to dress according to the situation. If you don’t know what that is, ask somebody. Don’t assume anything, particularly if you’re new to the area. Knowing how to dress appropriately makes you appear confident, schooled, and savvy.

Take the time to learn what’s appropriate in any questionable situation and you’ll never find yourself apologizing for your lack of finesse. For once you get the clothing issue out of the way, you can get down to more important things – like the business at hand.

Diana Pemberton-Sikes is a wardrobe and image consultant and author of Business Wear Magic, an ebook that shows women how to build a profitable business attire wardrobe that will help them enjoy a more profitable career.  If you think your business wear is holding you back, see the magic Business Wear Magic can perform. Business Wear Magic
Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.